Jessica Sanchez felt very uneasy about the catastrophic flooding that displaced hundreds of people in this farming town in Monterey County.
She felt worse when she heard that families were sleeping in their cars because some of the shelters had reached capacity and they couldn’t afford to buy hotels.
“I have two daughters and I can’t imagine having to sleep in a car when it’s cold and rainy outside,” said Sanchez, 34. “There is also the fear that a tree will fall on them.”
So on Tuesday evening, she and her friend Sara Perez, 36, joined a group of volunteers to feed those affected by the flooding that occurred when the Pajaro River breached a levee on Friday evening.
The two women handed out foam containers of chicken soup, pan dulce and cups of atole, a Mexican hot drink, near the Pajaro River Bridge in Watsonville, across the water from Pajaro , in California.
Sanchez said it was only the second day they were meeting to feed families after at least 70 people, including children, showed up on Monday.
“We ran out of food and I felt so bad because people were always showing up with their kids,” she said.
More than 70 people came again on Tuesday evening. Some drove, others got out of their cars and headed for the food queues, and some walked across the bridge from their homes in Pajaro with their children.
The families were mainly those in the two-story buildings who had refused to evacuate. The town has electricity and gas but no drinking water. Residents collected rainwater that they could use to flush toilets.
On the bridge, volunteers handed out tacos and hot chocolate on police tape that kept people from trying to get back to Pajaro. A security guard helped pass boxes of water to the families.
The arch bridge over the Pajaro River connects the towns of Watsonville and Pajaro, two communities that vary in population size and economic power.
Watsonville, located in Santa Cruz County, has a population of nearly 53,000 and a diverse economy that includes agriculture and manufacturing. Pajaro is lined with mom-and-pop shops and has a population of around 3,000, most of them farm workers.
Although they are in different counties, they share the same postal code. For people like Perez, they are closely linked through agricultural work.
“Even though they live on the other side of the river, they are our compatriots, our friends and our colleagues,” she says. “The other sad thing about all of this is that some of us are working picking strawberries there and now there’s no work for anyone.”
Sanchez said she’s worried about paying her $1,600 rent and bills due next month. Perez said she was paying $1,200 for a studio apartment and also didn’t know how she was going to pay her rent.
The women said the floods had injured farm workers on both sides of the river, many of whom expected to start work this week.
Sanchez and Perez said they’re disappointed Santa Cruz and Monterey counties haven’t done more to help families. Some of the flooded residents speak native languages and cannot communicate well in Spanish.
“I knew a woman in a shelter who wanted a blanket for her grandson, but she didn’t speak English and she didn’t speak Spanish very well,” Sanchez said. “I had a friend who could help translate for her.”
Authorities did not distribute clothes to people who had to leave in the middle of the night with no time to grab things, the women said.
“Some people have been wearing the same clothes for days now; they don’t have money and can’t afford to go to hotels,” Sanchez said.
She said volunteers had used their own money to support some of those displaced by the floods. One volunteer spent about $200 on food alone; another used his money to distribute toiletries and socks.
Juan Ruiz, 42, another volunteer, said it was important to lend a hand.
“Sometimes you feel helpless because you want to do more, but we can only help where we can,” he said.
Taking sips of his chicken soup, displaced resident Heriberto Garcia, 66, said he was grateful people were handing out food. He couldn’t understand why the county didn’t send workers to residents instead of asking people to go to them.
After the 1995 Pajaro flood killed two people and caused up to $95 million in economic damage, Garcia said he was hired to help pump water from flooded fields.
He said he hopes something similar happens soon because he has no money for his $2,200 rent next month.
Nearby, José Aguirre, 45, ate a plate of fries.
“I’m very grateful to everyone here for bringing food while we waited to go home,” he said. “It helps us save a little bit.”
Aguirre, a farmhand, said he couldn’t find a place in a shelter and had to rent a hotel room. By paying $103 a day for a room he and his wife share with their 15-year-old daughter, he has enough money to stay for three days, he said. Even if he doesn’t know what he will do next.
“We have no work,” he said. “We all need help, some more than others.”
He took a fry from his plate and watched people continue to arrive at the bridge in search of a hot meal and respite from the floodwaters.